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by jonathan zwickel on Aug 28, 2004
Listen: the world needs Public Enemy now more than ever. In their 18 years of existence, PE changed the way music affects society. Whether you listen to rap or not, they're one of the most influential -- and confrontational -- voices of our generation, spanning genre, race and class, bringing a forward-thinking aesthetic to both musical production and lyrical content. They may be legends of our time, but as performers, they damn sure still know how to bring the noise.
PE came first came together in 1986 at Adephi University's student-run radio station. Graphic arts student and radio DJ Carlton Ridenhour -- aka Chuck D -- had the idea of forming an aggressively political rap group whose purpose would be to bring racial issues into mainstream America. With longtime friend William Drayton, who evolved into the clock-rocking prankster known as Flavor Flav, and DJ Terminator X on turntables, the group began a career that took them out of Long Island and into musical history.
It was their second album that fired the shot heard round the world. 1988's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back featured the incendiary wall-of-noise of Hank Shocklee's Bomb Squad production unit, and soon anthems like "Don't Believe the Hype" and "Bring the Noise" blew out of America's ghettos and into white suburbia. Rap, said Chuck, was "black CNN", the mouthpiece of the inner city, and in a short time Public Enemy became icons of the nation's black community.
1990 saw the release of PE's undisputed masterpiece Fear of a Black Planet, possibly hip-hop's most important album, and one of the most monumental works of popular music. The album hammers on the most critical issues of its day -- racial profiling, AIDS, political disempowerment, racism in the entertainment industry, welfare reform, health care -- the social wounds of which are still mostly unhealed. Musically, it's a sonic storm of layered samples that effortlessly blended rock, punk, funk, dub and hip-hop into an overwhelming avalanche that left a permanent mark on musical production techniques. "Fight the Power" appeared in Spike Lee's seminal Do The Right Thing, another product of the time's boiling racial tensions; both the song and the film still hold a profound power.
Apocalypse '91... The Enemy Strikes Black was a worthy successor to Planet that paired the group with thrash band Anthrax for a remake of "Bring the Noise," a brilliantly aggressive track that presaged the flimsy rap-metal bands of the last few years. But after sustaining a high level of media scrutiny and bouts of controversy over racial stereotyping of their own, Public Enemy foundered with their subsequent albums, eventually going on hiatus in 1993.
In the intervening years, the group has lost old members and gained new ones. Chuck D has become a vocal supporter of free speech and digital rights, and is a highly visible activist on the world political stage. These days the band tours internationally, living off their reputation as hip-hop pioneers. Terminator X has been replaced by DJ, a champion DJ and creative prodigy who brings drum 'n' bass elements to PE's hard-hitting shows. The revamped lineup also includes a full funk-rock band with guitar, bass, and drums, but Chuck and Flav remain as the larger-than-life personalities that run the stage. Their performances are known to be inconsistent, but trust me -- when they fire on all cylinders the experience is nothing short of awesome.
Tonight Professor Griff's black metal band Seventh Octave opens, along with a solo set from DJ Lord. Rolling Stone recently crowned Public Enemy as one of rock 'n' roll's 50 Immortal Acts; tonight you just might find out why.
by jonathan zwickel on Aug 28, 2004